Climate Cast: The not so hidden insurance costs of climate change

Every Thursday MPR meteorologist Paul Huttner joins Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit for "Climate Cast" on MPR News Stations to talk about the latest research on our changing climate and the consequences that we're seeing here in Minnesota and worldwide.

These days it seems like we are witnessing climate changes unfold right before our very eyes.

It's not our imagination.

The nature of our seasons is changing. Spring blooms come earlier. Summer is more humid with a documented increase in extreme localized flash flood events...and more frequent droughts. Fall lingers longer. Lakes freeze up later. Winters are trending shorter and noticeably, measurably milder. New plants are able to thrive in Minnesota's milder climate.

We're all living witnesses to rapid climate changes in our lifetime. This is no longer your grandparents "Minnesota."

In 2013 at MPR we're devoting more coverage to the science behind and the growing effects of our changing climate in Minnesota and around the globe.

Hurricane Sandy roars ashore

NASA image

You can hear me discuss the week's top climate stories in our new "Climate Cast" every Thursday morning at 9:50am with Kerri Miller on The Daily Circuit.

Climate Cast for April 4th, 2013

Last year was an expensive year for insurers. Global economic losses from natural and man-made disasters totaled $186 billion.

Extreme weather events in the United States were the most expensive -- Hurricane Sandy alone caused $70 billion worth of damage.

On Climate Cast, Kerri Miller and MPR News' Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner talked about the economic impact of climate change. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Seawater gushes into the subway tunnel at Hoboken, New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy.

Image: State of New Jersey

Tracking the costs of climate change and extreme weather:

Follow the money.

That's becoming the mantra for those tracking the real costs of climate change.

Some of the costs of an increase in extreme weather events are obvious. Some are hidden. All are working their way into your insurance bill.

It's called "mutualized risk." And it's why some of your insurance bill in Minnesota and the "safer" areas of the USA end up paying for costly events like Hurricane Sandy and Katrina on the coasts.

As insurance companies try and price climate change into the market, they are hiring an increasing number of scientists to evaluate future "risk."

I asked Julie Serakos with BMS Intermediaries to expand on how those of us in more "climate safe" areas pay for costs from increasing extreme weather events elswhere, and why the USA is ground zero for risk and losses.

Hi Paul,

A couple thoughts: as a meteorologist you can appreciate that weather patterns and risk events are changing around the world all the time. While 2012 had a higher proportion of U.S. loss causing events, 2011 was the opposite with the Japan and New Zealand earthquakes, typhoons in Australia and the Philippines, flooding in Australia and Thailand, etc. despite the U.S. having one of the worst severe storm seasons on record. The insured loss, as opposed to total economic damage, tends to be driven by severe events that happen in the most developed countries including the U.S., western Europe and Australia.

As far as why the average person should care, the whole premise of insurance is to mutualize or "share" the risk. You and I pay a small insurance premium each year to cover the value of our homes because the cost of a complete loss is shared across all the other policyholders for the insurance company. We could likely never afford to pay a premium that covers the total loss to our homes if we had to fund it all ourselves individually. Insurance companies aim to rate policies based on the risk level of each policy as best they can, but are regulated by the state as to how much they can charge for the risk, which is where the spreading comes into play. Certainly homeowners in coastal locations pay higher premiums due to the hurricane risk in those states but the state regulators don't allow insurance carriers to charge the full risk load, nor could homeowners afford it, which again is where spreading the risk comes into play. So we all pay a little more for the increased risk in other locations, but in theory, the people in the riskiest locations pay even more.

Best, Julie

Swiss Re: U.S. Dominated Global Disaster Losses in 2012

Last year was the 3rd costliest year on record for insurers, and the USA lead the way with extreme weather events.

Climate Central's Andrew Freedman expands on the numbers.

The insurance industry had its third-most expensive year on record in 2012, with global economic losses from natural catastrophes and manmade disasters totaling $186 billion, according to a report released March 27 by the reinsurance giant Swiss Re. The total insured losses for the year was $77 billion, which was well below the losses seen in 2011, when earthquakes and flooding in Asia caused insured losses of $126 billion, which were the highest on record.

According to Swiss Re, extreme weather events in the U.S. dominated the list of the most expensive disasters of 2012, with Hurricane Sandy alone costing an estimated $70 billion in total damage and $35 billion in insured losses. In addition, the prolonged U.S. drought and summer heat waves resulted in insured agricultural losses of $11 billion, which was the highest loss in the history of agriculture insurance.

According to Swiss Re's data, nine of the world's top 10 most expensive insured loss events of 2012 occurred in the U.S. That is explained by the country's widespread use of insurance and the prevalence of extreme weather events in 2012, which was the hottest year on record in the lower 48 states. Out of the $119 billion in total economic losses in the U.S. during the year, Swiss Re found, more than half, or $65 billion, was insured. That amounted to about 0.68 percent of U.S. GDP for the year.

In recent years, the insurance industry, including Swiss Re, has been warning of its increasing exposure to climate change-related increases in extreme weather events as well as the effects of sea level rise. Scientific research has shown that global warming has already increased the odds of some types of extreme events, such as heat waves and heavy precipitation events.

The intersection of climate change, insurance and finance is a rapidly growing area of inquiry.

Yale Climate & Energy Institute Annual Conference -- Water: The Looming Crises

One of the most underreported aspects of climate change may be the increasing stress on our water supplies.

A warmer planet puts pressure on water supplies. Warmer temperatures trigger more evaporation of surface water from our rivers, lakes and aquifers. A potentially slower moving jet stream means weather patterns can get "stuck." That means deeper, more frequent droughts.

Friday's Annual Conference at The Yale Climate & Energy Institute brings some heavy hitters to discuss the future of water and climate change.

The topics include some surprising angles. Climate Change and water issues as a national security threat?

That's why the DOD and CIA game out scenarios as a warmer planet threaten massive shifts in available water...and the potential for massive disruption.

Here's a preview of the Yale event this week.

Shorter Winters Chip Away at a Logging Town's Future:

After this "spring" in the northern U.S. you might think shorter winters are a good thing right?

Not if you depend on frozen ground to make a living.

Here's a story about one industry that depends on sustained cold to deliver profits.

Climate changes are increasing some costs and eating into profits, and making us all pay more for lumber we use to build our homes.

Mary Thill from The Daily Climate expands via Climate Central.

TUPPER LAKE, N.Y. - Scott Lizotte was hopeful as he pulled his iPhone out of the breast pocket of his flannel shirt. "It's going to be six degrees tonight," he said, studying the 10-day forecast. It's mid-March, and he's standing between a skidder and a log loader in a snowy clearing of a 12,000-acre private forest near Tupper Lake, a former lumber town in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

The ground is deeply rutted from rain two days ago, but the return of cold has frozen it hard as blacktop. The forecast is good news for Lizotte and his logging crew, who need a frozen base of six inches to support the heavy feller-bunchers, skidders and trucks that cut and haul logs. Because deep cold provides a firm surface on which to move through the forest, winter is the most productive time of year for northern loggers, but winter is getting shorter.

"We used to go on the job when the ground was frozen, around the first of November, or around Thanksgiving," said Scott's father, Jeannel Lizotte. "Now it's going around Christmas time."

Added Scott: "This year it was New Year's before we got on the winter roads."

From stump to mill, some 57,000 people are employed in New York State's forest-products industry, 10 percent of them working in the woods. As much as 35 to 45 percent of the timber harvest across northern New York and New England happens in winter.

Climate Cast resources:

Want to know more about climate change? Here are few quick links to credible climate change sources.

-Read the Minnesota Public Radio primer on Climate Change

-NOAA NCDC's "State of the Climate" report

-AMS Statement on Climate Change

-NASA key evidence of climate change

-Great summary of Modern Day Climate Change from SUNY-Suffolk

-Minnesota Climate Working Group climate change resources

-Mark Seeley's Weather Talk

-Common climate change myths

-Climate change in the news from Climate Central

-More coverage from The Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media

Paul Huttner

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